January 22, 2004



Planning Board takes on waterfront strategy

By Kate Spinner

Staff Writer

NEWBURYPORT -- City planners and the Planning Board were encouraged by residents last night to begin implementing a plan that outlines goals for the future of the city's riverfront.

The city recently published a Waterfront Strategic Plan, with the assistance of consultants Goody, Clancy and Associates. It was presented to the Planning Board last night.

Mary Harbaugh, a Strong Street resident and member of the Open Space Committee, told city officials last night that the waterfront plan has "tremendous public support." As far as turning the plan into reality, she said, the city should "go for it."

Using the plan as a guide, the Planning Board and the city Office of Planning and Development will be charged with leading the implementation of the new plan by first revisiting city zoning.

The city's development codes will need to be revised so that future developers will be able to meet with the strategies outlined in the plan. The overall strategy is to shape development along the river around the city's remaining marinas, while connecting public waterfront parks through a continuous Harbor Walk.

The plan sets goals for new development that will keep marine businesses thriving in zoning districts within the dense downtown, as well as within districts where housing predominates.

Planning director Nicholas Cracknell told the board that restaurants and lodges, rather than residential housing, would work better to supplement marinas on Merrimac Street, out near Cashman Park and further down near Ferraz-Shawmut.

On the other hand, he said, housing and a mixture of commercial development could work well downtown, near the marinas that exist there. The plan calls for dense development in the downtown, accompanied by new streets and infrastructure that fit the historic feel of the area, as well as public courtyards and broad public access to the waterfront.

In conflict with the strategic plan, current zoning allows developers to build homes on lots used as marinas -- a policy that threatens to displace marine uses along the river. And in the downtown, zoning encourages suburban-style development, with wide streets, large lots and setbacks that don't mix with the district's dense and historically narrow streets.

Planners made clear last night that existing zoning codes are incongruent with the goals outlined in the plan. Because developers have the right to build whatever meets with city zoning laws, the city needs to change those zoning laws, if the strategic plan is ever to become more than a dream.

"There are a lot of implementation steps outlined in this report," said the city's senior project manager, Geordie Vining. "The main one ... is focusing on the zoning language changes."

Vining said the city needs to "get right down" to changing the codes over the next three to six months.

Long-time resident Bill Harris said a similar vision for the waterfront existed 80 years ago under the administration of former Mayor Michael Cashman.

"Very little of the Cashman vision was implemented," he said, adding he hoped the new vision would not meet the same fate. He encouraged the city to use its zoning laws to encourage development, but also to provide incentives for the public amenities desired in the strategic plan.

Cracknell agreed, emphasizing that the city intends to incorporate such incentives into the revised zoning.

Cracknell told board members last night he has begun to draft new zoning codes that reflect the desires outlined in the plan. The Planning Board's will take those draft plans, revise them and use them as a basis for public hearings.

Following the public's input, proposed zoning changes will undergo amendment. Final adoption of any changes to city zoning rests in the hands of the City Council.

Cracknell said last night the city is on its way to making the zoning amendments and a draft could be in front of the Planning Board within four to six weeks.

Planning Board member Fred Habib commended city planners for embarking on and completing the planning process for the waterfront.

"Looking at this in a comprehensive way is a courageous thing to do and something that can be incredibly positive," Habib said.


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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